Trivializing the girl stuff

In the 1990s when I shifted my research focus away from business interactions in Japan to the beauty industry, I was criticized by some anthropology colleagues, especially male ones and the archeologists and biological anthropologists. In Japan, older people I met said my decision was a waste—all those years of studying the Japanese language just to look at the silly things women do? Mottainai. This is, obviously, the sort of attitude feminists see as the crux of androcentrism. Girls and women are a force behind many financially lucrative markets that are often overlooked because of their feminized nature. For example, I found that in 2003 there were 173,412 documented beauty salons. By contrast, that same year there were 7,530 wedding and funeral services, 67,789 auto repair shops, and 14,136 software businesses. It is like the point Annette Weiner made: just because men don’t value the activities of women doesn’t mean that the anthropologist should ignore them, too. The dismissive attitude hasn’t changed much, but my list of interesting female-oriented activities and cultural production has grown, and now there is enough for another book. The new work in progress, tentatively entitled Japanese Girl Stuff, includes material on the divination industry, self-photography, novel script (writing system) elements, grotesque-cute aesthetics, Lolita slang, and more.

25 thoughts on “Trivializing the girl stuff

  1. That was a tasty nugget, but please give us some meat! I’m an avid reader of your work (Beauty Up! was great) and would love to hear a bit more about the new project.

    What kinds of work do you think still *doesn’t* fit well in gender studies rubrics…but could or should? What kinds of things are possible in Japan (or impossible?) that affect the ability to relate your work to broader concerns and interests of anthropologists working elsewhere? Is what is “Japanese” so specific that it can only stand within the cultural and historical contexts of Japanese society, or are there gender and/or consumption issues relevant for Asia more generally…or pointing to something about late modern life in wealthy and developed countries?

  2. Thanks for the nice words! Instead of providing a tasty meal for Savage Minders to gnaw at and chew up, maybe we can turn the question around and ask about knowledge production rather than consumption.What drives people to do the studies they work on? I’ve been impressed by how the younger cohort of anthropologists have social justice, human rights and environmental issues as a driving motivation. Instead of providing fodder for you all, it would be interesting to me to hear about what drives others to do their research and writing.

  3. “It is like the point Annette Weiner made: just because men don’t value the activities of women doesn’t mean that the anthropologist should ignore them, too.”

    That’s a damn good point. And considering all of the supposedly open-minded and holistic perspectives of anthropology, it’s pretty amazing that there is still such a dismissive attitude toward the kinds of themes and subject matter you’re talking about, Laura.

  4. Yeah, at my job talk just two years ago there was one anthropology chap who was pretty frank about not digging my research on girls’ purikura (print club photo stickers)

  5. Ryan, re: “That’s a damn good point. And considering all of the supposedly open-minded and holistic perspectives of anthropology, it’s pretty amazing that there is still such a dismissive attitude toward the kinds of themes and subject matter you’re talking about, Laura.”

    Sadly this (mocking) dismissiveness happens ALL the time in anthropology/the academy, including on this site too, by some of your fellow SM co-bloggers. And when the anthropologist is a woman of color instead of someone (read as) a white woman, the dismissal only intensifies, sadly. Here as always we need to remember the hierarchical constructed-ness of the category woman/girl/female.

  6. @Discuss White Privilege Yes indeed, I recall some denigrating sentiments here on Savage Minds expressed about anthropologists who do research on women’s magazines. Gee, I use men’s and women’s magazines, etiquette manuals, manga, novels, and all sorts of print media in my research and think it adds an important dimension to my work. Thanks too, for adding the “read as” a white woman, since I’m not an Anglo person, I’m Californio.

  7. Hi Laura, 
    Thanks for raising this issue of gender bias in anthropology. And just in case it wasn’t clear (to some), you weren’t one of the SM co-bloggers to whom I was referring and I did not read you as white. And it was precisely because I did nor read you as white (I had not slotted you into any racial-ethnic ‘box’ in fact, and realized that it was an open question) that I made sure to parenthetically call out the difference between (Althusserian) interpellation and self-identification (as well as Fanonian epidermalization). 

    I actually think this difference relating to how one is read (the flexibility for some and lack thereof for others), in the context of an analysis of race/gender hierarchies (including beauty hierarchies) and structural power asymmetries and positionality, is sorely needed on this site (and in anthropology more broadly, especially given the ‘white public space’ problems identified by Brodkin et al. and AAA minority reports). It is a discussion that makes clear exactly why I post as ‘Discuss White Privilege’ and engages issues of whiteness, light-skin privilege, racial hierarchies, implicit bias and aversive racism (see John Dovidio’s work on the latter) and the ways in which anthropologists, on this blog included, often profess antiracism and a lack of bias when behaving in highly racist (and sexist ways): like mocking a black female anthropologist who studies racialized beauty hierarchies for asking what should be obvious questions–especially for anthropologists, especially when they claim to ‘antiracist’ and not sexist– about how race/color/gender biases and hierarchies inform perceptions of beauty and attractiveness (like ‘thinking man’s/women’s crumpet’) or racial/gendered perceptions of similarity and difference (as well as worth and value–social and other, including erotic and other forms of capital) more broadly. 

    We could be having all sorts of very *anthropological* discussions on this site (a nod to Victor Grauer’s comment), certainly in relation to ‘value’ (a nod to Ryan and John McCreery’s recent exchange), in relation to dating, marriage, adoption, egg/sperm donor preferences–in the US and globally, but we are not. Why? This is a gold mine for anthropological inquiry (especially in relation to globalizations and neoliberal capitalism and its subjectivities), and yet…

    There seems to be quite a reluctance to discuss the daily, anthropological realities of race/gender/color hierarchies and their concomitant privileges. All of which is very interesting to me, especially as an anthropologist who definitely cares about women’s magazine (and beauty preferences and practices) here and elsewhere.

    Discuss white privilege, as I always say. Indeed.


  8. The new work in progress, tentatively entitled Japanese Girl Stuff, includes material on the divination industry, self-photography, novel script (writing system) elements, grotesque-cute aesthetics, Lolita slang, and more.

    Like Marco, I would like to hear more about these topics. I wonder if it would be possible to agree that “girl stuff” is an entirely appropriate topic for anthropological investigation, that Annette Weiner and other feminist critics are entirely right that ethnographic accounts that neglect women are insanely lopsided for a field that claims to provide holistic accounts of human societies and humanity as a whole, and that use of documentation from non-academic sources can enrich and deepen ethnography—and move on (as we have in the discussion of values started by Ryan Anderson) to discussion of what we might look for in Laura’s research.

    Once again, I will be riding my hobby horse and arguing for the importance of historical depth. For example, let us consider AKB48, a girl group that is currently immensely popular in Japan and enjoying some success overseas as well. An anthropologist doing fieldwork in Japan in 2011-2012 find their images everywhere. They appear almost every day on TV, magazines are full of stories about them, pundits debate their significance as representatives of Japanese culture and Japanese youth. A synchronic account of Japanese popular culture in this time frame would have to mention them.

    But what about four or five years later, when the anthropologist’s ethnography finally makes it into print? In an essay originally written for a handbook for German business people doing business in Japan and now republished on PopAnth, I observed that,

    The Japanese creative’s judgment more often reflects a sense of what is trendy and fashionable, not just in Japan but, more often than not, in the international worlds of fashion, film and music to which he or she is very much attuned. As much or more than other Japanese, Japanese creatives devour information about the latest trends. And their appetite is largely satisfied by mass media whose uniformity is striking.

    This last point is vital. The result is a constantly moving wave of common knowledge that is typically months or years ahead of the Japanologists’ efforts to grasp what is going on in Japan. If the foreign manager had the time as well as the language skills to keep up with what is going on, he, too, would share that knowledge. He, too, would have a sense of what is coming in and what is going out. Dealing with the fact that he doesn’t is one of his most pressing problems.

    Confronted with a phenomenon like AKB48, what is the anthropologist to do? To portray them as typical of Japanese women is, without careful qualification, naive. In the first place, given Japan’s aging population there are now more Japanese women aged fifty and older than there are in the early teens to mid-20s age cohort from which AKB48 draws its members. The J-Pop music they sing is only one, albeit perhaps the most popular, of numerous musical genres now popular in Japan. The images on the covers of teen-oriented fashion magazines ignore the fact that the best selling apparel in Japan (for both men and women, across all ages) is Fast Retailing’s UNIQLO brand, which, being no connoisseur of fashion, I would describe as GAP, manufactured in China, using hi-tech materials–not at all the kawaii, cute in an infantile, little girl with pretty curls and frilly dresses look that pops into this okureteru “behind the times” brain when he things of girl groups in Japan. I recall that, somewhere in my anthropological midden, I have a video tape prepared by my colleagues at Hakuhodo for a presentation to a fashion client. The year was 2001, and the tape documented looks that had been popular in Tokyo teen mecca Shibuya since 1995. The point of the tape was that, while every year from 1995 to 1999, a new look at appeared and was rapidly adopted by all fashion-conscious teens, 2000 saw this “look of the year” system break down. The fashion market had fragmented. There was no one dominant look. My off-the-cuff observations around Yokohama station suggest that the same situation still obtains. I see girls with elaborately curled long hair, heavy makeup and frilly dresses, but also women around the same age in jeans, overalls and fishermen’s caps over short straight hair. Lots of city shorts but also lots of pants and long, ethnic-look, dresses.

    So, what’s the anthropologist to do? My own solution is to become an historian, pursuing hermeneutic circles in a widening gyre that may lead at one extreme to noting the similarity (elaborate costumes and heavy mask-like makeup, if not actual masks) between Imperial marriage kimonos and Shinto vestments whose patterns can be traced back to before 1000 BCE and kospure “costume play,” in which manga and anime fans dress up as their favorite characters, but also takes into account current fashion trends and longer-cycle phenomena in which looks come and go and may then be revived when old enough to feed nostalgia instead of being seen as hopelessly out of it.

    Any other approaches out there?

  9. Dear Discuss White Privilege and Others To be honest I feel a bit defeated on the sexism angle. Lawmakers in the US have passed absurd laws about women’s bodies lately. So no, I’m not feeling very “excited” about anthropology at the moment, I’m just walking around wearing my Sluts Vote button.

    But at least on the racism issue people seem more receptive. Maybe it would be instructive for us to take a look at the recent report from the American Anthropological Association, ‘Racism in the Academy’ Essays in the volume are moving and disturbing. As so well documented in these narratives, racism frequently operates on a level of unconscious microaggression, and even those who don’t think they are being discriminatory fail to recognize their own privileged status.
    In Jane Hill’s fabulous book, The Everyday Language of White Racism (this would be on my list of best books in anthropology for undergraduates), she makes it clear that even well-meaning Anglo people often participate in racist ideology without knowing that they are doing so. So our work as anthropologists should be to write in such a way that people will make an effort to get these messages about sexism and racism. And I suspect that one of the managers of Savage Minds invited me to be a Guest Blogger this month because he realized that a non-Anglo feminist girl voice might be a good thing in this space.

  10. @ John Thanks for the notes. Yeah, AKB48 aren’t typical girls, are they? In fact, they are fake fantasy capital, as I say in an interview with The Atlantic For historical depth, yup, that’s there in the old stuff, and it will be in the new project as well.

    In fact, I have another co-edited book in press (with Alisa Freedman and Chris Yano, Stanford University Press) on gender labor and mobility in Japan. My own chapter is on Japanese Elevator Girls. I examine the history of that occupation since 1929 to the present, with case studies of particular elevator girls, and discussion of their uniforms, training and language. I got interested in this topic, actually, because I was so irked by Nicholas Kristof writing such a condescending description of elevator girls in the New York Times years ago. So I set out to reclaim this part of women’s cultural history. So yeah, love the history part. Totally agree that we need it.

  11. @ Marco For the book Japanese Girl Stuff, some of the topics are already published in pupae form. Each topic is rather different with its own history and context, but for anyone who wants to really pursue this, part of my rationale for writing the book is found in an article “Cute Masquerade and the Pimping of Japan,” in the International Journal of Japanese Sociology, Vol. 20 Issue 1, November 2011. Basically, I want to offer another view of Japanese energy and creativity than that which global otaku fanboys and government agencies promote. The chapter on girl characters (gyaru moji) can be found in an open access article in Language and Communication (Subversive script and novel graphs in Japanese girls’ culture I look at how and why such a novel and unattractive writing system was devised and spread among young women. I published an offshoot article on tarot cards last year as well, which relates to the book’s intent: Japanese Studies vol 31, Issue 1, 2011 “Tantalizing Tarot and Cute Cartomancy in Japan” The ethnographic part of the book project has involved my visiting many types of girl spaces periodically over the last ten years or so, including divination shops, fabric stores, cat cafes, bead shops, print club photo arcades, and Boy’s Love comic stores. I am finding that girls and women are extremely busy consuming, creating and producing objects and activities that are virtually ignored as part of “Cool Japan.”

  12. @DWP:

    “Here as always we need to remember the hierarchical constructed-ness of the category woman/girl/female.”

    Yep. You’re definitely right about that.

  13. Laura, thanks for the link to the Atlantic piece. Great quote from Dr. Miller. Yes, some anthropologists do get taken seriously.

    Allow me to reproduce it here for those who don’t click through to read the whole thing.

    “It’s good business,” says Dr. Laura Miller, a professor of Japanese studies and anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The group members are fantasy products, and allowing fans to imagine them as potential partners or as innocent and pure is part of their capital. It’s in their interest and those who are trying to make money off them to keep their actual lives, personalities, and humanity separate.”

  14. @Laura, I’m actually less hopeful than you are on the racism front. The overt attacks on women actually make it easier to fight sexism and outright misogyny, galvanize people–including male allies–en masse. It is much harder to fight covert, veiled racism; to get people to see their daily microaggressions and how they constantly behave in racist ways in unconscious, reflexive fashion. 

    As Hill herself writes, pointing these things out means running into a wall of often very-angry white denial. And the ferocity and abusiveness of that anger increases the farther down the race/color/status hierarchy one goes: i.e. a white male anthropologist will generally be treated with far more respect and deference than a dark-skinned black female anthropologist (always authorized to speak v. how dare *you* tell me something I don’t want to hear and I am NOT going to countenance coming from the likes of you!!). Everyone can’t point of the microaggressions equally, unfortunately, and as both “Racism in the Academy” and “Anthropology as White Public Space?” discuss. 

    Moreover, how many white anthropologists have read these articles? From a the interactions I’ve had recently it seems not a lot and that, sadly, many individuals who would most benefit from reading these publications are not in fact reading them (such that they would not question what ‘real racism’ there is ‘in anthropology in 2012’, or express incredulity that there could be profound racism in an elite anthropology program). There is a lot of ‘Well, I certainly don’t need to read that since I’m not racist’ dismissal going on. Some white anthropologists, and I am speaking from real-life experience here (not hypothetical rhetorical flourish), just dismiss such articles as “whining”, the ‘whining’ of ‘over-privileged’ minorities who ‘know nothing of “real racism” and just like to “frivolously complain about racism that does not actually exist”‘.

    This idea that there is (putatively fake) ‘racism,’ and ‘real racism’, is a big reason I am not as hopeful as you. When it comes to racial microaggressions, even just trying to point them out becomes an opportunity for being subjected to more racial microaggressions. Many of the most intractable forms of structural racism can’t even be discussed as the structural racism that they are. The definition that most people have for racism, including many (white) anthropologists, is of racism as conscious and intentional bias/discrimination/hatred of another person or group because of ascribed racial status. But this is not a useful, critical, or particularly anthropological, definition. But because it is the definition used in political discourse cum common parlance, one gets endless denials of racism even when it is operant (e.g., “But I didn’t intend to be racist”), and hears things like the ridiculous denials about how Mitt Romney ‘does not have racism in his heart’ and Paul Ryan can’t be racist because he dated a black woman in college and the Romney/Ryan welfare ads aren’t racist because they don’t explicitly say “black President, Barack Obama, loves to give welfare checks to lazy n*ggers in the ghetto”. (Newsflash: one does not have to be A Racist–a card-carrying klansman–in order to be racist, behave in racist ways, promote racial policy: yes, there can be racism absent conscious racist ‘intent’ per se.) And the corporate media generally shies away from any constructive critique of these ‘I’m not racist/I didn’t mean to be racist denials’ and does a poor job of explaining *structural racism*, much less actually uses the term. Meanwhile, actual racial-disparity statistics (on wealth, employment, law enforcement and incarceration, residential segregation, educational re-segregation, health) continue to increase (the general trend with some exceptions), even as many people believe ‘we’re post-racial now’ due to an increase in *symbolic representation*. And yes, many improvements in racial inequality have occurred since the 1960s, but this does not mean that we are still not a profoundly racist and unequal country (not that many of these issues of race/color inequality aren’t also global), nor does it mean that we are doing a better job of talking about these inequalities, even in anthropology. Some anthropologists may be doing a better job, but it does not mean the discipline as a whole is. The space for talking about microaggressions, especially as a black (and female) anthropologist–much less for discussing white privilege and daily forms of white supremacy–is small, very small. On this blog my comments are generally not engaged by more than a handful of commenters, and are often totally ignored. Simply posting as ‘Discuss White Privilege’ is seen as ‘antagonizing’ and offensive and trolling, because directly discussing white privilege happens infrequently enough to make asking to discuss a ‘radical’ act, though it’s really not. 

    Anyway, I won’t be wearing a N*ggers Vote pin anytime soon ( And that I won’t speaks to the ways in which racism and sexism are not equivalent, even if both forms of discrimination; and speaks to the ways in which (antiblack) racism makes it necessary to ‘discuss white privilege’, especially in anthropology. Especially in an election year, with Barack Obama as president. Kind of a relevant topic for anthropological discussion, especially for those advocating for a public anthropology that is not considered ‘irrelevant’.

  15. Correction: I meant to write “promote racist policies”, instead of “promote racial policy”.

  16. Dear Discuss White Privilege One of the contributors to the AAA volume Racism in the Academy is my new colleague, Sheilah F. Clarke-Ekong. All women in academe experience similar revealing vignettes, but in her case the underlying racism obviously added an ugly extra layer. She wasn’t (still isn’t) a run of the mill professor like me, but was at the department chair or dean level when male colleagues said and did things we would never see them do to another white man. I thought she was brave to write that chapter, and I sent it to some people. But I got the sense that they never looked at it. We were at some event and I said something like “That’s sort of like the oven story,” and people looked puzzled, “What’s the oven story?” It is one of the many scenes from the volume that are now permanently in my mind.

    I teach Jane Hill’s book and the chapters students resist the most are on Mock Spanish and the word squaw. I add on lectures on the naming practices of sports teams and US military that use putative Native American names and images. Because these are sincere and well-meaning students (they are sitting in a non-required linguistic anthropology class), they get very upset to imagine that usage of Mock Spanish and Native American naming is racist. As Hill notes, the American folk model of racism is that it is an individual psychological problem, so my students feel as if their integrity is being attacked, rather than seeing it as part of the structure of white privilege. I don’t always know how successful I am teaching this material, but it sits with lessons on language ideology as one of the topics linguistic anthropologists are very interested in these days.

  17. Dear Laura, as always, thanks for the response. Your response made me think about the importance of the academic precarity discussions. Anthropologists behaving in racist and sexist ways can abuse and retaliate against graduate students and untenured faculty in ways they cannot against tenured faculty, especially at the Dean or department chair level. This is why I wrote about abuse increasing the farther down the race/color/gender/status hierarchy in a previous comment. I completely agree with your last comment that sexism affects all female academics, but it doesn’t affect us all equally. For better and worse.

    Discouraging to hear it confirmed that it doesn’t in fact seem like many people are reading the articles. But it is also not at all surprising, unfortunately, given dismissal, denial, and disregard are also how white power/privilege works/is (re)produced.

  18. @Laura Milller

    Hot off the presses! The September 15, 2012 issue of Senden Kaigi has a long special section devoted to the reemergence of “Yankee” (military uniform and other tough-guy, punk looking styles) among a substantial and possibly growing fraction of young women in Japan. Among the researchers’ observations are that around 20% of audiences as AKB48 events now wear this style—which may be due to Majisuka Gakuen, a TV Tokyo drama series in which members of AKB48 appear as tough, nasty girls wearing this style, who quarrel, scream, hit each other, or, in sum, behave in the way characters in punk-oriented manga do. I am reminded of an observation by my favorite Japanese trend tracker, Atsushi Miura, that as the belief “you have to be beautiful to succeed” becomes increasingly pervasive among young people, a fair number are reacting with “f-you” moves in the opposite direction (I am probably exaggerating what he says for effect, but the implication is there).

    Anyway, I am planning to translate a bunch of material from this special section and put it up on our company website, in our Consuming Japan blog stream. May take a couple of days, but should you be interested, take a peek at to see what I find.

  19. I really enjoyed both this and the furosato post. But on the topic of AKB48, I’m a bit uncertain about how to read them together.

    As I understand the furosato post, it is that you (Laura) originally had a rather cynical view of enka as bad-faith emotional ‘investment’ in a capitalist fantasy (one with ugly nationalistic overtones). But over time, you have come to see the legitimacy in that ‘longing’ for the furosato that actual fans of the music might experience, not as fake or abstract imagery but as a real place.

    But then in the admittedly very brief comments made about AKB48, you seem to have the same kind of reaction as what you describe to be your original reaction to the enka song(s). Again it seems to be a rather cynical view, where this time it is the phenomena of AKB48 (and presumably other jpop idols) that showcase a bad-faith emotional investment rooted again in a capitalist fantasy (this time likely with ugly gendered overtones?).

    While I think this is definitely true to an extent (as it is with enka), I think it misses the possibility of the original insight from the furosato post. I.e. that the ‘purity’ or ‘availability’ of these jpop idols is not, at least as I understand it, an abstraction for the fans (the big, obsessive, buy every merchandise fans that is) but, again I think, an actual person that they long for in a very emotional way. I’m no expert on idols nor enka, but from the conversations I have had this seems to be what is explained to me. Of course it is enforced in ways that seem quite ugly, but from the perspective of the fans, I think the idol having a romantic partner is a bit like having the furosato paved over and replaced with a Wal-Mart.

    Since the other post brought up the issue of age, it kind of made me think: if you need to be over 50 to get a good grasp on enka, how young do you need to be to get a grasp on jpop idols?

    Anyway, just some thoughts. As I said, I enjoyed both posts a lot and they are very thought-provoking.

  20. Just to make a correction since I worded that poorly. I think it would be better to say that the jpop idols are not abstractions of purity or availability, but rather actual persons that fans long for. If that makes more sense.

  21. The Atlantic journalist, who is an expert on Japanese pop music, made it clear that he was looking for a comment from a feminist scholar, perhaps with the idea that we would be enraged at the “no dating policy” as an infringement of rights. Only I don’t see the no-dating rule as something odd given the nature of this type of idol group. I actually don’t think that fans have a “bad faith” investment in the fake (or even the genuine) J-Pop singers. They desire a particular type of product and the artist or the artist’s company delivers it. And the no dating policy extends to the male members of the boy bands and constructed boy groups as well.

    Young male and female entertainers are treated as products sold by the media corporations and consumed by fans, they are used in product tie-ups, commercials, farmed out to the same TV programs, and are expected to keep their private lives out of the scandal magazines. The majority make it in the geinokai because they accord with current fashion and aesthetic norms, and because they fill their pro forma roles well, and rarely because they have exceptional talent. We aren’t talking about musical hipsterdom here, these no-dating rules are for the prefab groups who are created for specific markets. And one of the rules of that market is to not have an obvious normal private life.

    Over the years I have seen an increase in female popular music singers and singer-songwriters that go beyond the idol production system. So, in addition to a continuing idol system, there are also new types of girl-centered music and avenues for artists to become popular outside the production companies. Talented artists such as Hamasaki Ayumi, Aikawa Nanase or OreSkaBand are not told not to date.They are free to pursue relationships and have children, and no one gets upset. The fake idol groups are a special category, so at least I understand the no dating logic. AKB48 in particular is selling a constructed image of schoolgirl cuteness, so there’s an explicit level of artificiality to begin with that suggests that members shouldn’t mess with the fantasy. I wouldn’t call my attitude cynical, I just don’t feel sorry for AKB48 members who get booted out when they date. If they had real talent, they could go on to work on a solo career or write songs. But they don’t have real talent.

    I think there was a small upset among Gackt (hot boy signer) fans whenever there were rumors of his past marriages or that he dates women, because of his carefully constructed media persona as a sort of edgy yaoi (boy’s love) object of interest. Kimura Takuya of SMAP has always ignored the non-dating rule from the beginning, but that’s because he had the goal of being taken seriously as an actor all along. And he now is a serious actor.

  22. @ John That’s great, it should be a fun project. I wonder if yankii style wasn’t given a boost earlier with the hugely popular 2002 Shimotsuma monogatari book and film? There have always been (ignored) working class female yankii around, but the film starring Anna Tsuchiya as the yankii girl really made an impact in girl culture.

  23. Laura, I wonder if part of the dismissal of your beauty industry research (in the 90’s) was partially due to the way in which anthropology has historically focused on topics that are coded in Western societies as “work.” The idea that social activities can be easily divided into the categories of “work” and “play” has shaped the way many social scientists do research. Activities deemed to represent “play” are seen as trivial or unimportant in this categorization. Despite the fact that this categorization has been thoroughly discredited by some social scientists, I get a sense that some anthropologists from certain traditions still see topics that are coded as “play” (e.g. pop culture research, video games research, etc.) as illegitimate areas of study for anthropologists.

    I think that women’s practices are more likely to be coded as play due to assumptions about who “works” (in given society) and how they use economic resources. This allows some anthropologists to code institutions like the beauty industry as being frivolous since they stereotype activities like using make-up as not as important as real work. Of course, “real work” is usually defined in terms of men’s economic and political activities.

  24. Dear Former Grad Student Thanks for the great insight! Yes, one reason feminist scholars began to use the concept of “beauty work” was precisely to make the point that so much goes into this part of life: think of the money spent, the time spent, and all the effort that goes into creating transformations in order to conform to ever changing, ever more unrealistic standards. And I also, of course, looked at male beauty work as well, including the surgeries Japanese men get (cosmetic circumcision and creation of eyelid folds), cosmetic procedures (eyebrow plucking, hair dyeing), and so on. I agree that “real work” (Geez–“real anthropology” for that matter, judging by comments on Savage Minds), are often coded as male or masculine activities and interests.

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